Category: process

Jack Bean

Earlier this week, I finished the “first draft bear” for a new pattern that’s been percolating in my mind for many months. As always, there’s still a bit of tweaking to go, but I’m generally happy with the overall result. As is my little boy.

Jack Bean (as he has been named) is sewn from 100% pure new British wool cloth, a remnant from my wedding dress. With his soft & lumpy body, he reminds me of the Waldorf style of dolls which are currently captivating my attention (when I’m not thinking about bears). He’s just perfect for cuddles at night time.

Growing wool

DSC_0041Whenever we’ve visited my parent’s-in-law this winter, we’ve spent time lending a helping hand in their allotment, pulling up carrots, beets & leeks from the frozen ground. It’s a place we’ve always enjoyed coming as a couple and now a little family, with our boy bundled up against the cold and wet in layers of wool & welly boots. On some days, as I dream of harvesting this summer’s crop of tomatoes with L, I let my eyes wander to the adjoining field where my love’s uncle keeps a tiny flock of sheep to graze amongst the apple trees. And there my mind wanders to other dreams.

DSC_0055I have the tiniest of dreams that one day we might have our very own (tiny) flock. Because flocks of sheep grow into balls of yarn, don’t they? And I find there’s something incredibly appealing about the continuity that would come from slowly working from field to fleece to finished ball of yarn using raw materials that I had been responsible for growing.

DSC_0030That said, we are also realists and understand that caring for one sheep let alone a whole flock would be both an enormous responsibility & commitment. And yet somehow, coming up to Brittany and moving to this place has really felt like a step closer to this dream as well as a few others. There is ample space in the garden of our current abode for us to keep a couple of local Breton breed Ouessant sheep, and we had fully intended to be hunting for a pair of ewes with the start of spring. However unforeseen circumstances in our family mean that for now, that project (along with the chickens) will have to wait for another day. My love thought the disappointment would be crushing for me, but somehow even just to know it would technically have been possible is rather exciting. And whilst I wait patiently, I am content to meet as many local sheep as possible, and try out their fleeces (more on that later). To meet shepherds, sheep breeders and farmers. To talk to them about their many experiences of raising sheep in these green hills and gather their wool to transform into hand spun yarn and felt. And also gain some hands on experience at handling & living with sheep before we get some of our own.

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sheep & wool

baregeoise-1It might already be apparent to those of you reading here or elsewhere that I love wool. I’m fascinated by everything that the world of wool has to offer us and it seems that I have, quite unintentionally, made it one of my life goals to surround myself with all things wool related. Wool, as my beloved dictionary tells me is the “outer coat that grows on sheep” that is “used to make things such as clothes, blankets and carpets“. It seems so simple and obvious. And yet.

I have a confession to make.  

I grew up in the West Country, in the beautiful county of Dorset. An area, like much of Britain, whose countryside is quintessential sheep rearing country.   And yet it wasn’t until recently, very recently, that I started paying attention to sheep. Really paying attention.

Like most people, I could recognise a sheep when I saw one. They have woolly coats, live in fields, eat grass and have lambs in spring. But those basic things apart, sheep were only sheep. I would not have been able to name the specific breed. Or what part of the world it belonged to. Or known what it was doing in that particular field or why it was there.

It was only in 2013/14 when I first started seriously becoming interested in where my yarn came from that I began to realise that not all sheep are the same. That there are different breeds which have been developed over time to become adapted to the land they live on. And that these adaptations make for an infinite number of possibilities, in terms of shape and size and character of the animal. And therefore also in the fleece.

Quite soon after taking up the wheel and spindle in spring 2014, I realised that these new activities had opened up a new source of joy for me. At the time, I was living in a sheep rearing valley in the French Pyrénées. It was possible to spin yarn from sheep I’d met whilst out walking in the mountains. Or as Annie Claire has so beautifully put it, “to tighten the gap between pasture and pullover”, as it were.

From the moment I was invited to select my first fleeces from a friend’s farm, I felt a deep rooted satisfaction when I held my first finished skeins in my hands. Knowing that I’d worked with it from raw, stinky fleece through to final, washed and blocked yarn. Even if it was a bit lumpy and bumpy.

So far, all of the raw fleeces I’ve worked with have come from sheep that were born and raised in the valley where we used to live. Some from the local rare breed the Barégeoise, (see the photo above). Other fleeces came from other traditional (French) South West stock. Beginner that I was, very early on into my experiments I nonetheless started noticing differences in the way the fleeces responded to the various stages involved in spinning yarn: scouring, carding, spinning, plying and blocking. It quickly became apparent that if I were to do justice to the fleeces, it was important to become familiar not only with the various characteristics of the breeds but also the history and fibre traditions associated with each.

And now we are living in Brittany, a region where wool (but also flax & hemp) are deeply embedded into the landscape & textile traditions, offering me ample opportunities to try my hand at new types of wool & fibres as we explore the area around us.

Perhaps one day, we’ll have a  patch of land. Where we’ll live in a tiny round house made of fleece and spend our days getting grubby. Him tending to a little permaculture veggie plot, me looking after a little dye garden and our own (tiny) flock of sheep. Then I’ll not only be able to meet the sheep whose fleeces I work with, but I’ll know them intimately.

Until then, I can enjoy the wondrous fibres by working directly with fleeces and yarns that have been grown elsewhere and cared for by other hands. And so in keeping with my personal slow wool project, I’ve decided to start sharing some of my sheepy discoveries and experiments with breed specific fleeces and yarns from here in France, my native Britain and perhaps, occasionally, a little further afield.